Moulding History

If you’re looking for a Christmas gift with an unmistakably Lanzarote touch, why not buy one of the traditional pieces of pottery from the island? At the Monumento al Campesino, we visited a craftsman who still creates ceramics in the ancient way.

There are very few remains of the Mahos – the ancient, pre-conquest natives who lived on Lanzarote – that can still be seen. Some enigmatic patterns carved in stone and the remains of a few of their stone dwellings are among the few relics, but pottery is perhaps the most important of their legacies.

Juan Jesús Brito works as a ceramicist at the Monumento al Campesino, demonstrating this ancient craft to hundreds of visitors who arrive each day.

Where did you learn pottery, Juan?
From my father, Juan Brito, who was responsible for continuing the tradition of ceramics on Lanzarote. I’ve been doing it for 40 years now.

Where do the raw materials come from?
Clay is a sedimentary rock, and on a volcanic island like Lanzarote it isn’t common, but there are areas where it can be found. The most important deposit is near the Ermita de Las Nieves on the cliffs of Famara – if you dig for a couple of metres you can find good quality clay deposits, and we later mix these with clay from other areas.

How do you prepare the clay?
Well first you have to dig it up and fetch it down. We pound the crumbly stone in a big mortar until it’s a fine powder, then we mix it with water until it reaches the right consistency. That’s when you can work with it. We use different blends depending on what the pot is for.

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Do you use a potter’s wheel?
No, and the reason is that this type of clay just isn’t suitable for throwing on a wheel. That’s one of the reasons why the old traditions have survived here – the Spanish brought potter’s wheels, but they couldn’t be used. Everything is worked by hand. For smaller bowls and pots I’ll just make a hole with my thumb, then round it out with a smooth stone. Later, when it’s dried out a bit, I’ll smooth it down, again with a wet stone, or add traditional decorations – making lines and notches with a sharp piece of bone or pressing seashells into the clay. I follow the engravings and patterns that have been found on ancient fragments of pottery.

We fire the pottery in the ancient way, building an oven from stones and layers of firewood. The oven’s called a güijo – an ancient Lanzarote word that is also used for the stone enclosures where livestock was kept. We need to collect firewood and wait for the right weather before lighting the fire.

What’s the difference between aboriginal pottery and later ceramics?
Pots made by the natives usually have round bottoms. That’s because it’s difficult to make flat-bottoms from this clay. Natives would usually set their pots in the earth or stones to keep them upright – that’s why the decorations are only around the top of the pots.

Why do you do the job?
It’s not my only job. I also work with the Cabildo’s Heritage department. But what I do here isn’t about selling pots – you can buy them, of course, but the most important part is showing people how it’s done. I take courses every morning for just €3 where I’ll show anyone the basics and let them have a go themselves – they can come and pick their own pot up later.

The Novios del Mojón
The Novios del Mojón (Lovers of Mojón) are a common sight in tourist shops on Lanzarote – generations of children have giggled at the two ceramic figures of a man and a woman, each with outsized sexual organs.

The original Lovers are to be found in the Archeological Museum in Arrecife and were found in an ancient site of archeological remains. A more recent pair, dating from the late 19th century, can be seen at the Museo Tanit in San Bartolomé. However, the statues owe their current popularity to one woman – Doña Dorotea de Armas Curbelo. Born in 1899, Doña Dorotea learnt pottery at her mother’s side and later set up a workshop in El Mojón, where her pots and figures of the Lovers became popular.

According to tradition, lovers would give each other a figure to seal their engagement, but it’s also been claimed that women who reached a certain age without finding a husband would be sent a male figure as a sign of mockery.

In the 1960s, Juan Brito contacted Doña Dorotea after discovering hundreds of pottery fragments at Zonzamas and deciding he wanted to learn this ancient craft. Dorotea was the only potter on the island at that time, but Juan learnt from her and later passed his skills on to his own son.